LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James in the 400m at the 2012 Pre Classic in Eugene (© Kirby Lee)
LaShawn Merritt has won the Prefontaine Classic an unprecedented five times, but this year's 400m on 27 May in Eugene, the third stop of the IAAF Diamond League, has exciting fresh talent ready to challenge him.
It will be a Pre Classic debut for half the field and two who will compete in the US for the first time are the fastest teenage runners this century.
Merritt, 30, knows about running as a new talent, and even beating a few. He was only 19 when he won his first major gold, the world indoor 400m in 2006. A decade later, Merritt owns 12 major gold medals – three in the Olympics, and his last in Rio featured an unpressured 43.97 anchor split for the U.S. 4 x 400 team. Merritt has run faster than that from the blocks six times, topped by 43.65. But 43.97 is his fastest at Hayward Field, first achieved in the memorable 2014 Pre Classic and then again in last year’s U.S. Olympic Trials – becoming the first three-time winner in that event.
Among those to challenge his supremacy is Karabo Sibanda, 18, a new talent and one of four to make his Eugene debut. He was fifth in Rio – the youngest-ever finalist in this event – running 44.25 that is amazingly only No. 3 on the Botswana all-time list. It also puts him No. 3 on the world Junior (U20) all-time list, but only No. 2 from the southern African country which is now a major force in the event. Sibanda is still eligible for U20 records – the world standard is 43.87, set by American Steve Lewis in winning the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Botswana teammate Baboloki Thebe was only 19 when he ran his first known 400m race in the prelims of his national championships last year in Gaborone. Later that day he shaved nearly three seconds off his best and ran 44.22, beating Sibanda by over a second. The African Championships gold medallist last summer ran in Rio, but didn’t start his semifinal due to injury. Now 20, he had the fastest split on the second-place team in last month’s World Relays 4x400, a squad that ran 2:59.05 in Rio without him. This will be his first race in the US.
Luguelin Santos, 24, is the Dominican Republic’s fastest ever at 44.11, and second best in the field. Before Rio, he was the youngest ever Olympic finalist in this event, claiming silver at the 2012 London Games as an 18-year-old. A year later he earned silver at the World Championships in Moscow.
Leading the European charge is Pavel Maslak, 26, of the Czech Republic who has won the last two world indoor titles as well as the last three European indoor crowns. He was silver medallist in last summer’s European Championships, where he won gold in 2012
British champion Matthew Hudson-Smith, 22, was a Rio finalist, running his two fastest ever times on the blue Brazilian oval, topped by a 44.48 in the semifinals.
The domestic entries include relay stalwarts Tony McQuay and Vernon Norwood.
McQuay, 27, is regularly a blazing runner on the US 4x400m team, clocking splits of 43.41 and 43.5 in the last two Olympics.
Norwood, 25, anchored last year’s 4x400m squad to world indoor gold in Portland. A former NCAA indoor and outdoor champion at Louisiana State University, Norwood won the Millrose Games 50m0 indoors in February with 1:00.11, the third fastest ever.
Organisers for the IAAF
2017 IAAF Diamond League calendar:
5 May – Doha, QAT
13 May – Shanghai, CHN
27 May – Eugene, USA
8 Jun – Rome, ITA
15 Jun – Oslo, NOR
18 Jun – Stockholm, SWE
1 Jul – Paris, FRA
6 Jul – Lausanne, SUI
9 Jul – London, GBR
16 Jul – Rabat, MAR
21 Jul – Monaco, MON
20 Aug – Birmingham, GBR
24 Aug – Zurich, SUI
1 Sep – Brussels, BEL